Case without a Corpse
At dinner that night Stute was in good spirits, but I fancied that there was irony in his amusement.
“Really,” he said, “this thing is going too far. It seems we have only to start enquiries for one of the people we supposed murdered, to find them safe and sound, and quite willing to tell us all they know. I’ve never had such a case. Do you know that for the first time in ten years I’ve been thinking of getting someone else in?”
“I don’t think you should do that,” I said. “After all, it is narrowing down.”
“Narrowing down! I should think it was. “It will fade away altogether soon. But what can I do? If I go to my chief and say I don’t believe that anyone was murdered, he will instantly ask why young Rogers committed suicide. And whom he had stabbed with that knife. And whose blood it was. After all, even if nobody’s dead, young Rogers believed there was. Where is that person?”
I sighed. “Don’t ask me,” I begged, “I’ve been out of my depth from the beginning.”
“There is this about the facts that we’ve collected—they are gradually establishing the time of the murder. Now that we have found the girl it can be assumed that it was done after Rogers left the Dragon at twenty to seven I am going to concentrate everything on the next hour and a half—that is before he got back to confess to old Rogers at eight o’clock I’ve instructed that constable. . . .”
“Galsworthy, do you mean?”
Stute nodded irritably. “I’ve sent him to question the commissionaire and box-office girl at the Cinema, to see if they remember Molly Cutler waiting there at seven o’clock. And we’ll go tomorrow to see the people living on either side of old Rogers’s shop, in the hope of discovering whether young Rogers came in while his uncle was out between six-thirty and seven fifteen. But it’s all hearsay. All reports from townspeople. Nothing to go on. Give me an honest murder with a body to it, and I’ll find your man. A couple of bloodstained carpets and a telegram from Bournemouth, and we’ll have a hanging. But damn it—where are you in a thing like this? It doesn’t need a detective but a fortune-teller, or a water-diviner, or a medium.”
“You know very well you’re enjoying it,” I said.
“Well, it’s unusual. But they’re getting a bit impatient at the Yard. They need me in this Rochester affair.”
“You’ve still got the foreigner,” I reminded him, “and Mr. Sawyer’s brother.”
“And a thousand other people who haven’t been seen lately. I dislike the idea of even making enquiries about the publican’s brother. It will make a fool of me, because no one would believe afterwards that I wasn’t certain it was he. And also because I don’t want to be the one who sends that poor devil back to his wife. I’m a married man myself.
“So we must just go on hammering away. Collecting facts and sorting them out. At any rate we have established that it was not Fairfax and not the girl, who was murdered.” And again he smiled somewhat bitterly.
Next morning several reports had come in. Fairfax’s alibi was in order. The shop at which he had bought the two hand-bags was able to find the purchase in their books for that Wednesday, and a record of their having been sent to Hammersmith that night. The assistant even claimed to recognize the photograph shewn him. The barmaid at the Sword on the Cross remembered the incident referred to by Fairfax and on seeing his photograph said that he often came in. But she could not, of course, fix the date. However, since Fairfax had been at Braxham for some days before, and had, presumably, gone to France the morning after, this added weight to his story. The most concise and satisfactory confirmation came from the Flintshire Hotel, who remembered Fairfax and had a record of his having stayed there that night under the name of Fortescue.
“Nice ’ow it all fits in,” commented Beef.
I think we can take it as proved,” Stute admitted more dryly.
Then Galsworthy had to tell us that both the commissionaire and the box-office clerk at the Cinema clearly remembered Molly Cutler having waited about in the foyer for “at least an hour” on the day of the suicide, and had often commented on it since. Galsworthy was about to go into details of how upset she had been when Stute cut him short and dismissed him.
“’E’s a decent young fellow,” Beef said. “’Is trouble is ’e keeps too much to ’imself. Never gets among the other fellows. ’Owever, wot with this training. . . .”
“There are more important matters to be discussed, Beef, than the idiosyncrasies of your assistant. Have you done as I asked you and questioned the various garages where Rogers might have bought petrol?”
“Yessir. ’E ’ad some in at Timkins’s near the station at some time just before three, but that’s all.”
“Very well. And now we will go round and see the people living beside old Rogers’s shop, to see whether they remember hearing the motorbike that night.”
The houses of the High Street were old, and as so often happens behind the clearly divided shop fronts, the living quarters were chaotically arranged. The yard of one house would be set behind the back windows of another, while behind a lock-up shop would be the whole of a dwelling-house which was reached by a passage running down beside it.
We went first to old Rogers himself, who left his workshop to shew us where his adopted nephew had kept his motor-bike. Between Rogers’s shop and the next, a dingy furniture store was a public passage leading right through to another street, and in the wall of this was a wooden doorway into Rogers’s back-yard.
“He had fixed that door with a spring catch behind it, and a Yale lock, so that when he went out on his bike he left the latch of the lock up, and when he came back he had only to kick the door and it would stay open for him. You can see the place on the paint-work where he used to kick it. Then he could ride right in, across the yard, and into that shed, where he kept it. It was a heavy machine, and he didn’t like wheeling it,” old Rogers explained.
“Very ingenious,” said Stute. “But noisy for you if you were sitting in your room behind the shop.”
“Oh, we didn’t mind that,” said old Rogers with a smile. “We were used to noise when he was about.”
“I see. So that if, when he came in at eight o’clock that evening, he had come on his motorbike, you would certainly have known it?”
“Oh yes. But I’m sure he didn’t. Unless by any chance he wheeled it in on purpose. Even if he’d ridden it up the passage I should have noticed, because it used to resound between those two walls.”
“So that I am to understand that he came in on his motor-bike between half-past six and seven while you were out, and then went out again on foot?”
’’That’s what it certainly looks like. His bike was in the shed next morning, anyway.”
“Whose windows are those?” queried Stute indicating two very dirty windows which looked out on to the Rogers’s back yard. They faced the wall with the door in it from a house behind the shop on that side.
“Some people we have nothing to do with. Well, there are a lot of children, and they took to climbing out of that window into our garden, and when I spoke to the mother about it, she got very abusive. Very abusive indeed.”
“Does she own the shop in front of her house?”
“Oh no. That’s a lock-up sweet shop. These premises are let to her—very cheaply I believe, but the landlord can’t get her out. Not very pleasant neighbours for us. Such very dirty children. My wife gets quite worried about them.”
“I see. How does one get to them?”
“There is an entrance between my shop and the sweet-shop next door.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rogers.”
“If you do see those people, Scuttle the name is, please don’t mention us in any way. We shouldn’t like any unpleasantness.”
The owner of the cheerless second-hand furniture store beyond the passage proved to be rather deaf. He was stupid or obstinate or both. No, he certainly didn’t know which was the night of the suicide. He didn’t know there had been a suicide. He never read the papers— they were full of lies, anyway. Yes, he had heard the noise of the motor-bike in the passage often—he wasn’t as deaf as all that. He couldn’t remember when he had heard it last and certainly not at what time of day. He didn’t have much to do with his neighbours, and knew nothing of their goings and comings.
The sweet-shop, on the other hand, produced a tall bespectacled gentleman who would have liked to be helpful, but who closed his shop and went home every evening at six-thirty except on Saturdays, when he kept open later. He hadn’t noticed young Rogers return that evening, but he suggested a call on Mrs. Scuttle next door. She had the living quarters of his shop and her windows, as we knew, overlooked the Rogers’s yard. She ought to be able to tell us if anyone could.
Stute rang at her bell. There was an instant scuffle audible, and after a fight for the privilege of opening the door two very dirty little girls faced us. There was jam on their cheeks, and their clothes were stained and rather ragged.
“Where’s your mother?” asked Stute.
“In the lavortree,” instantly replied the taller.
Beef gave a rather vulgar guffaw behind me, but Stute remained calm. He did not need to speak again, however, for both small girls rushed helter-skelter down the passage shouting “Mum!”
Presently Mrs. Scuttle approached, her skirts clutched by several more children. She was a lean and harassed soul in her late thirties, as dirty and untidy as her children. Her dark hair looked greasy and hastily tied together. She eyed us with some alarm, a hand on the door as if ready to shut it if our business wasn’t welcome.
“Yes?” she said.
“I have come to make a few enquiries, Mrs. Scuttle,” said Stute, “I think you may be able to help us. I am investigating this matter of young Rogers.”
Mrs. Scuttle’s attention was temporarily claimed by one of the children.
“Marjree!” she shrieked. “Leave off, can’t you?” Then turning to us she said, “Well, you better come in. I can’t stand talking here.” We followed her down the passage to a malodorous room with a kitchen range in it, before which a number of pieces of clothing were hung to dry.
“I don’t know what I can tell you, I’m sure.” She turned aside to a small boy. “’Orriss! Will you put that down!” Then to us again, “What is it you want to know?”
I have no idea how many children there were in that room. Sometimes, in my wilder nightmares, I think there were a dozen. There can’t have been less than six. And the whole of our, interview was punctuated by her violent adjurations to them.
“Oh yes. I remember the evening right enough. Well, there was good cause to, wasn’t there? (Sessull! Leave ’er alone, you naughty boy. I’ll get this policeman to take you away.) Yes, I ’eard ’is motor-bike come in. I said to my ’usband next morning when we ’eard what’d ’appened that I ’eard ’im come in.”
“What time would that have been?”
“Well I was just putting Freeder to bed. It must ’ave been about ’arf past six. Not much later, anyway. (Roobee! You’ll go to bed in a minute!) I always knew when ’e came in at night because apart from the noise ’is light used to shine right in that window.”
“And would you have heard him if he went out again?”
“It’s more than likely. He used to put ’is lights on in the yard, even if ’e didn’t start ’is machine up there, which ’e did, as often as not. (Mind what you’re doing! Erbutt, I’m speaking to you! You’ll ’ave that over!) No, I’m sure ’e didn’t take ’is bike out again that night. I should ’ave noticed.”
That seemed doubtful in the face of the distractions which assailed her. But I supposed that she was accustomed enough to these to have been able to give her attention to the engrossing matters of her neighbours’ activities.
“And you heard nothing more that night?”
“Nothing at all. I’ve often thought to myself that I might well ’ave, but I didn’t, so that’s all there was to it. (Rouse! ROUSE!) No I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Scuttle.”
“Oh, you’re welcome. I’d like to know who it was ’e did in, too. But I shouldn’t be surprised if we never do know, now.”